Infested

Infested (Vermines) (2023)

Infested (Vermines) released on Shudder, 26 April, 2024

Sébastien Vanicek’s Infested (Vermines) opens with the image of a snake slithering over a rock, and a vehicle passing in the background. This is somewhere in North Africa, where bearded men wearing keffiyeh drive a pickup truck through the desert along what is less a road than an unpaved track. Suddenly they stop and get out, aggressively barking instructions at one another, and lift some equipment out of the back, including a yellow metal case, a gas canister and a machete. All this plays upon the viewer’s prejudices, as we are left to wonder what those men, determined and clearly meaning business, are up to out in the middle of nowhere. Certainly their urgency and speed suggest some kind of criminal enterprise. Are they insurgents? Terrorists? In fact, as will become evident, they are merely poachers, although nonetheless what they are unearthing is a weapon of mass destruction. For they flush out from a burrow an isolated and rare species which they then collect in plastic boxes for illicit but lucrative international trade – although, as we shall immediately see, the bite from just one of these swarming spiders is both painful and deadly.

One of these boxed spiders finds its way into the Parisian emporium of Ali (Samir Nait), where it is purchased by Kaleb (Théo Christine), an entrepreneurial young man who, when he is not selling shoes out of his basement lockup, keeps exotic animals in his bedroom – all in the distinctive Arènes de Picasso apartment complex, in the eastern suburb of Noisy-le-Grand. Though striking on the outside for its Eighties brutalist architecture, this housing project is dark and neglected on the inside, while housing a multicultural community of mostly first- and second-generation migrants who look out for each other like family in the absence of any help from the authorities. Mixed-race Kaleb shares the apartment with his sister Manon (Lisa Nyarko), while constantly arguing with her – she wants to sell it, whereas he is not ready to move on and leave the place where the memories of his late mother hang everywhere like cobwebs. Kaleb has been long estranged from his childhood best friend Jordy (Finnegan Oldfield) and Jordy’s girlfriend Lila (Sofia Lesaffre), and his only remaining friend is sweet-but-dumb MMA boxer Mathys (Jérôme Niel) – but all these characters must work together after Kaleb’s new spider breaks out of her box, rapidly multiplying, growing and spreading, while parasitising the bodies of any current residents. As the scotophilic sicariidae spread through the building’s dark interiors spaces, and the police lock it down from the outside, Kaleb realises that it is time to face his fears and, if he can, to let go.

Infested

“There’s no real or fake, it’s all there,” Ali tells Kaleb of the goods that he sells, “If you don’t want it, piss off.” The same might be said of Vanicek’s feature debut, which mixes real spiders with increasingly outsized CGI confections, and readily adopts a take-it-or-fuck-off approach to terrorising the viewer with its constant sense of hidden menace. These killer creepy-crawlies, though at least at first often unseen, are imbued with a characteristic clicking sound to herald their presence – and that sound, and its accompanying, acquired associations of mayhem, will quickly come to impose on the viewer a Pavlovian response of formication and dread, which is then fully realised with rapid, leaping attacks. Very soon, it will not just be the spiders that are squirming, as the film taps into our primal fears, as well as into other spider-themed horror films like John ‘Bud’ Cardos’ Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), Frank Marshall’s soon-to-be-remade Arachnophobia (1990), Jack Sholder’s Arachnid (2001), Ellory Elkayem’s Eight-Legged Freaks (2002), Frank Darabont’s The Mist (2007) and even Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (2014).

There are other filmic traditions around which Infested also spins its web of locked-down, genre-bound associations – for in using the setting of an apartment building as a multi-level, multi-storied microcosm of social stratification, it evokes all at once Paul Donovan and Maura O’Connell’s Siege (1983), Lamberto Bava’s Demons 2 (1986), Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s [Rec] (2007) and [Rec]2 (2009), Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher’s The Horde (La Horde, 2009), Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block (2011), Gareth Evans’ The Raid (2011), Pete Teavis’ Dredd (2012), Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s Gagarine (2020) and Lee Cronin’s Evil Dead Rise (2023). In this housing project where Gilles (Emmanuel Bonami), one of very few white residents, regards his neighbours as ‘scum’ with open xenophobia, and treats Kaleb with extreme prejudice, the film’s title (whether the English ‘infested’ or the original French ‘vermin’) all at once literally denotes the arachnid occupation of the building, but also draws on those words’ undertones as racist metaphors. For here, there is more than one kind of otherness that is feared, and the film carefully ironises its own terms to confound any notion of what it is to be alien invader or alienated insider.

After all, those uprooted spiders are only following the same nesting instinct that all life shares, while the forces assigned to protect the building’s previous inhabitants prove no less of a threat than the neurotoxic newcomers. Here old residents and new, much like those men in the film’s prologue, are just trying to make the most of what fate has dealt them, and to eke out a living in a hostile, Darwinian world. That spider did not ask to be forcibly evicted and exported from its home in the African desert to the Parisian banlieue. It is, however, terrifying. And so Infested all at once scares the pants off us, while subtly interrogating the very fear that it inspires, importing an uncomfortable mixed message that criss-crosses its deep, dark structure like gossamer, and burrows its way into the viewer’s own perhaps contradictory attitudes towards immigration and the North African diaspora. Meanwhile, there is more than one mother haunting this edifice’s interiors, as Karim still carries his grief with him in and even beyond the apartment complex.

strap: Sébastien Vanicek’s spidery feature debut sees an apartment complex in the Parisian banlieue aggressively invaded by a terrifying foreign species

© Anton Bitel